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This old ballad positively reeks with ancient folklore, with dead children coming back to speak to their mother and then having to return to the grave before daylight, a theme which, with variations, is repeated in other songs such as “The Unquiet Grave”. It can only be traced back to 1802, in a Scottish version, there are no broadside copies and versions in England are as rare as the proverbial. The song has only been found twice in English oral tradition, once from Oxfordshire from “three very rough gypsy-looking furze cutters” in 1910, and once in this fragmentary version from Gloucestershire, again from a gypsy singer. Gypsies are renowned for having older ballads in their repertoire but as with many gypsy versions, the story soon gets garbled and ends up with a verse from “King Herod and the Cock” before coming back to a farewell verse found in other versions. This is an important ballad and it is a pity that Sharp did not manage to get a tune from Mr Fletcher. Perhaps it was dictated rather than sung.
Despite the song’s rarity in England, the song is widely known in the USA, usually without the Usher’s Well reference but known with such titles as “Three Little Babes” or “There was a lady, lady gay”.